ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. - It was as if the Bills were the Patriots and the Patriots were the Bills. It was as if Tom Brady was Drew Bledsoe, and vice versa. It was Buffalo coach Gregg Williams being asked whether he had gotten into Brady’s head, with nobody wondering if the Patriots’ Bill Belichick got into Bledsoe’s head, as is often the case.
After last season’s two lopsided Patriots wins, one might have expected a downtrodden Buffalo team and an upbeat New England squad yesterday, and a Patriots victory. What happened, a 31-0 Buffalo win, the worst opening day loss in Patriots history, was just the opposite.
Five days after Lawyer Milloy’s release from the Patriots over a contract dispute, he was still on the winning side of a game the Bills could not have orchestrated any better. Milloy, who started at strong safety, made five tackles and was credited with an 11-yard sack of Brady. He made a key play by defending a pass in the back of the end zone intended for David Patten, enabling Nate Clements to grab the deflection for an interception.
The last starter introduced, Milloy came out with a new dance that he had especially designed for his new fans.
“I don’t think the Bills needed Lawyer to get them going,” said Patriots guard Mike Compton. “The rest of their guys outplayed us in every phase of the game.”
That wasn’t the sentiment of some others, but at least two players who were livid that the release of Milloy occurred so close to the start of the season were convinced it played a role in the defeat. One said there was no question Milloy helped the Bills’ coaching staff by filling them in on tendencies of the Patriots’ offense.
“I’m not saying they knew what was coming, but when you have Lawyer’s knowledge of our team this close to the start of the season, what do you think is gonna happen?” one said.
Bledsoe said, “Most of what he told us we already kind of felt that we knew, but we got confirmation from him on those things. We didn’t go and change our plan a whole bunch, but he did give us some little tips as to how they would try to play certain things.”
The Patriots were flat from the outset.
If there was one other undeniable fact about the Bills, it was that their revamped defense seems like it may be special. At least it was on this warm day before 73,262 at Ralph Wilson Stadium. To shut out the Patriots, who were last blanked Nov. 8, 1993, 6-0, by the Jets, was overwhelming evidence. Newcomers Takeo Spikes and Sam Adams were big differences on a defense that ran over the Patriots, limiting Brady to a 14-for-29 effort for 123 yards and four interceptions, clearly his worst as a Patriot.
“There was nothing good that came out of that game,” said Brady. “It’s the first time we’ve faced adversity in six weeks and we’ve got to rebound. From the opening kickoff to the last play of the game, it was all one-sided.”
Adams sealed the game when he picked off Brady with 10:24 remaining in the second quarter. The big man rambled 37 yards down the right sideline, carrying the pigskin like Ricky Williams but doing this “40” in perhaps the slowest time in NFL history. Yet blocks by London Fletcher and Aaron Schobel kept him protected, making it 21-0.
Spikes, who played last season for the Bengals, picked off two passes, made six tackles, and defensed three passes. And the thing he liked most was, “At least I don’t have to go home and have to hear Chris Berman say how much we [expletive].”
“Our defense,” said an ecstatic Bledsoe, “Jeez. They were tremendous out there.”
Bledsoe, who was 17 for 28 for 230 yards, with one touchdown and one interception, wasn’t bad either. When Bledsoe can play with a lead, not force balls into coverage, and use his running game, it’s usually going to be a long day for the opposition. Another ex-Patriot, Sam Gash, opened up good holes as a lead blocker for Travis Henry, who ran 28 times for 86 yards.
The Patriots actually ran the ball well, gaining 105 yards on 21 carries, Kevin Faulk accounting for 62 yards, but many of the runs came when the Bills were defending a 21-point halftime lead.
The Bills stuffed it right down the Patriots’ throats on their first possession, marching 80 yards in nine plays. The Bills converted two third-down plays on the drive (they were 7 for 14 on third down in the game) and Bledsoe connected on a 24-yard pass to Bobby Shaw over Ty Law and Antwan Harris. Law became animated after the play, but denied he was yelling at Harris. Said Harris afterward: “We play a team defense. If they make a play on us, it’s a team mistake, not an individual one.”
From the Patriots’ 20, Law was called for pass interference on Eric Moulds, who had a step on him in the end zone when Law brushed his backside. On first down from the 1, Henry, behind Gash, knocked it in for the 7-0 lead.
With the temperature 72 degrees, Bledsoe kept the Patriots’ defense on the field for 15 plays and 9:28 on a 90-yard scoring drive in which nothing went right for the Patriots. Third tight end Fred Baxter committed a defensive holding penalty on a punt, which would have ended the drive at the Patriots’ 40. Instead, the Bills kept on moving, and Bledsoe hit wide-open tight end Dave Moore from 7 yards out for 6 more points.
After Adams’s play, the Patriots went into the locker room with that huge 21-0 deficit. They have come back from such deficits before, but when they had opportunities to score they didn’t take advantage. In the third quarter, after Willie McGinest had recovered a Henry fumble at the Bills’ 22, Brady threw to Patten in the end zone, but he could only get one foot in bounds as he was pushed out. Belichick challenged the call, but it was upheld. Instead of trying a field goal from the 8, Belichick had the offense go for it, but Deion Branch dropped a pass from Brady on fourth down.
“I just dropped it,” said Branch.
Spikes didn’t drop the ball thrown to him by Brady late in the third quarter at the Bills’ 45. That set up Buffalo’s final touchdown when Henry swept right for a 9-yard score with 13:21 left. The Bills added a field goal, prompting Rohan Davey to replace Brady.
Milloy had no bigger ally than Law, but the Patriots’ cornerback said after the game, “I’ve gone to two Super Bowls on teams that lost their opening game. You can’t draw any conclusions. It meant more because it’s a divisional game, but we’re better than this.”